Ewa and Magda Cybulska thought they had left the horror behind them. After witnessing their parents' beheading during World War I, the two sisters—like so many other Europeans fleeing the aftermath of the Great War—immigrated to the United States. With nothing more than the clothes on their backs and the hope in their hearts, they boarded a squalid vessel bound for New York City.
But the American Dream quickly turns into a nightmare as Ewa (pronounced Eva) and Magda step onto Ellis Island.
Magda's nagging cough is diagnosed as tuberculosis—a condition that lands her in quarantine. It'll be at least 6 months, Ewa's told, before her sister is free to go. And Ewa will have to pay for Magda's care for her to be released.
Ewa, of course, is penniless and dependent upon the goodwill of her Aunt Edyta and Uncle Wojtek, who've promised to meet the sisters upon their arrival. But her relatives never show up. Nor, Ewa's told, is their address valid. Worse yet, Ewa is accused of having been a "woman of low morals" on the ship to New York. It's an accusation that warrants immediate deportation.
Ewa's fate seems sealed until a man named Bruno Weiss takes notice of her. Paying off immigration officials, Bruno takes Ewa to his home in Brooklyn, promising to give her a seamstress job for the burlesque troupe he manages.
"You're a very lucky lady," he says.
When Ewa rebuffs Bruno's attempt to embrace her, he sheds his skin of kindness like the manipulative snake he is. In its stead rise angry threats that finally cow Ewa into submission. Soon she makes her debut not as a seamstress but as one of Bruno's "doves" (as he calls them), women who dance topless in his burlesque review. A devout Catholic, Ewa is slow to comply. Eventually, however, she submits to this objectifying and demeaning occupation … and then to the darker profession that comes with it: prostitution.
Bruno, we learn, regularly preys upon helpless immigrants like Ewa, rescuing them from deportation only to entrap them in a life worse than what they left behind.
[Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Ewa is a model of sacrificial commitment. No matter what happens, she's determined to secure Magda's liberty. Some may argue that she goes too far, submitting as she does to even prostitution. But the movie makes it clear that she has little to no choice in the matter, and that her stoic acceptance of her grim path is rooted in nothing short of a supreme love for her sister.
After eavesdropping on Ewa's confession to a priest in which she reveals how trapped she feels, the hardened Bruno shows us that he is not utterly heartless. He eventually frees Ewa, buying her and Magda a train ticket to California. And in their final conversation, Bruno admits how badly he's taken advantage of, used and abused Ewa. He says his heart is "poison" and tells her, "Go. Forget me. Forget about this place. Forget what I made you do. I took everything from you. I left you with nothing. Because I am nothing." Ewa, remarkably, responds (after hitting him and crying), "You are not nothing." Poignantly, in a parallel scene earlier in the movie, a fellow immigrant tells Ewa, "It's terrible the way they treat us here, like we are nothing." Ewa responds, "I am not nothing." Thus the film affirms every person's dignity and worth, even amid terrible abuse.
Bruno's cousin Emil, meanwhile, exhibits a genuine, respectful love for Ewa, and he wants to free her from Bruno's bondage. But Emil (who goes by the stage name Orlando the Magician) is as unstable and impulsive as he is earnest, traits that prove to be his undoing. (And there are valuable lessons woven into that as well.)
Much of Ewa's and Magda's piety is focused on Jesus' mother, Mary. As they wait to get into America at Ellis Island, for instance, one of them says, "Say a prayer to the Mother of God." Indeed, we repeatedly hear Ewa pray for help in difficult circumstances, her pleas simple and direct: "Lord, forgive me," "Please protect my sister," "Mary, Mother of God, in the hour of my need, help me." She closes one prayer with, "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."
Confessing to the priest, Ewa tells him that she has lied, stolen food, stolen money and worked as a prostitute. "I use my body for money," she says. And she adds, "I know I do not go to heaven." The priest agrees to a point, telling her that if she does not forsake prostitution, she will fall under God's judgment: "God punishes you for your sins, my child." But he also encourages her that the "Good Shepherd" knows how to find the "lost lamb," reassuring her that "all souls can be saved." Then he says, "You must find a way to leave that man," meaning Bruno. Ewa knows she cannot do so and still rescue her sister, and responds dejectedly, "So maybe I go to hell."
Elsewhere Ewa asks, "Has it been a sin for me to try so hard to survive? Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?"
Incredibly, Ewa also has a sense of responsibility when it comes to Bruno's soul. "God sent me to someone who is very lost," she says. And even though he "has made [her] life a sin," she recognizes that Bruno's decision to keep the police from finding her when she's unfairly suspected of a crime (which results in him being beaten badly) represents a significant sacrifice on his part. "He has suffered for me," she says. "I am learning the power of forgiveness."
Emil tells Ewa, "God's eye is on every sparrow."
Several times the camera watches the women of Bruno's burlesque troupe perform topless. The bare breasts of five or six women are visible as they dance in two scenes; we see them onstage and backstage, and suggestive dancing is a large part of their routine. They're also shown bathing (bare torsos again visible).
The prostitution Ewa and the other women engage in is implied, not shown. There's talk of their payment, and we see money going to Bruno and the women. Ewa's first John is a teenager whose father wants him to be more "manly." Ewa is reluctant, but Bruno goads her into it. When she capitulates, the scene fades as the young man begins to reach for her. (Ewa refuses to eat after that first sinful act, but Bruno manipulates her by saying, "You helped your sister today.")
Ewa and Emil kiss. Bruno is also in love with Ewa, who is forced to live with him—but his feelings don't stop him from functioning as her pimp. Ewa tells the priest that she was taken advantage of sexually on the boat.
Bruno and Emil's first conflict is a fistfight in which Bruno pulls a knife. (They're separated by police.) Another fight they have during a burlesque show escalates into an all-out brawl. Later, Emil puts an unloaded gun to Bruno's head—prompting Bruno to stab his cousin in the chest, killing him. Bruno hauls Emil's body down to a trash dump.
The police chase Ewa and Bruno through the sewers. He hides her and leads officers away from her; they beat him savagely with their nightsticks. When a woman tries to attack Ewa, Ewa holds her assailant at bay with a knife.
Someone shouts that Ewa's breasts should be cut off. Speaking about her past, Ewa tells Bruno, "Soldiers cut our parents' heads off and made us watch."
Crude or Profane Language
A half-dozen f-words. One s-word. One use of "t-ts." Ewa is called a "b‑‑ch" three or four times and frequently derided as a "whore." We hear the racial and ethnic slurs "kike" and "pollock." God's name is abused two or three times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Alcohol flows freely throughout this Prohibition-era story. Bruno gets falling-down drunk once. He intentionally gets Ewa drunk before she has sex with her first "customer." After Bruno's beaten, Ewa gives him an opium-spiked concoction for the pain.
Other Negative Elements
Here New York City's Finest are anything but. They accept bribes, fail to enforce dry laws, consort with prostitutes, and beat and rob Bruno. Among many other crimes, misdeeds and deceptions, Bruno repeatedly bribes Ellis Island immigration officials.
Director James Gray says that much of what we see in The Immigrant is based on the remembrances of his own grandparents. The result is a sobering tale of what might happen if a devout, vulnerable Catholic immigrant girl fell into the clutches of a predatory and wicked man.
It's not pretty.
More than a few scenes are intensely painful to watch, whether it's because of their realistic-feeling violence or, more often, because Gray spends almost as much time focusing on the lecherous, lustful, leering men in the burlesque theater as he does on the bare bodies of the women performing. In other words, he seems to be as interested in depicting the exploitation that's taking place as in titillating the viewing audience.
These are raw, disturbing shots of women being treated like slaves, which, for all intents and purposes, is what they are.
Through it all, as if to defy the darkness encircling her, Ewa clings tenaciously and desperately to her faith, struggling to accept God's forgiveness herself and to offer it to Bruno. All for the sake of saving her beloved sister—with whom she simply wanted to start a new and better life in the place so many have called the Land of Liberty.
A postscript: Reflecting on The Immigrant's somber-and-significant themes, I couldn't help but think of the stories we hear today about people (especially children and young women) falling into the clutches of modern-day sex traffickers. A century of supposed progress has not scoured the world of its Brunos, soulless predators still casting devious nets for the weak and vulnerable.
Just as Ewa frequently prays for God's protection and deliverance, so we too would do well to consider how we might labor on behalf of all the Ewas still imprisoned in evil and dehumanizing sexual servitude.